The UK has “systematically and persistently” broken legal limits on air quality for a decade, according to a Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruling on 4 March. The UK Government has already been defeated three times in its own courts on the issue of air quality by environmental law charity ClientEarth.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) remain illegally high in 75% of urban areas and the CJEU said the UK had failed to tackle the problem in the shortest possible time, as required by law.
Research published by the government’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee shows that ‘Clean Air Zones’ – which apply charges to the most polluting vehicles – are an effective measure in improving air quality, but only London has implemented such policies to date. Similar initiatives in other cities have been delayed or rejected.
Following the ruling, Katie Nield of ClientEarth said: “It’s up to the UK Government to work with local leaders to make sure these schemes are put in place as quickly as possible, alongside support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport… While authorities dither and delay, people’s lives are being ruined by toxic air.”
Commenting on the decision, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are considering this judgment from the CJEU. We continue to work at pace to deliver our ambitious NO2 plan and our 2019 clean air strategy, which was praised by the WHO as an example for the rest of the world to follow.”
Despite the ruling the UK is a leader in another area, with CO2 emissions having fallen faster than those of other leading economies in recent decades; Scotland is also to host the COP26 international conference on climate change in November.
The UK Government could face financial penalties if it fails to take action, although some commentators ask if the court will have the inclination to impose such fines as the UK is no longer a member of the EU.